Posted by: Mick on 2010-01-27 12:02:03
So, I gambled last night and purchased MAG, the new PS3 FPS being styled as part MMO. I say gambled because there was very little information floating around about MAG. Since it's a purely online game none of the video game review outfits will write anything until they've had a chance to play the live version, which makes sense. Fortunately, I am not a professional video game reviewer, so I can happily publish my initial impressions based on my first few hours of play.
The first concern I had about MAG is technical. 256 players is a lot and there has been a lot of commentary about whether MAG can carry the load. When I first loaded the game I was afraid it couldn't. At around 5:30 PM Pacific, coincidentally the time I first tried to play, the servers went down. In the beginning the game only produced unhelpful error messages like connection lost, or connection timed out, but eventually players were presented with a message noting that the servers were down for maintenance and directing us to the MAG blog for further details. It seems Zipper, the developer, either never thought to separate their game and web servers or simply didn't prepare their web site for the traffic last night, because their blog was down too. For those who had the good sense to check the PSN blog, Jeffrey Dunham of IGN fame was responding to players there and accurately reported that the servers would be back up before 7PM Pacific. Once the servers were back up I was able to play without any latency or stability issues. In my opinion Zipper/Sony handled this well. Although I hate to give developers a pass, server issues are kind of expected on major launches. Furthermore, they were quick with an explanation and forthright with restoration time estimates, even if they had to do it on the PSN blog. That makes them less than perfect, but far ahead of MMO developers like Blizzard who communicate only in words like "soon".
I've only had the chance to run two mission types: Suppression and Sabotage. Suppression is essentially just a 32 vs. 32 player death match, without any objectives beyond killing the other team. Sabotage is based on either taking or defending objectives. It's very similar to the bomb maps in counterstrike, only there are multiple and sequential objective locations (i.e. When the attacker takes out the first two they move on to the 3rd). This is where I first experienced the widely discussed phenomenon of people (read idiots) ignoring the mission objectives. When you begin a sabotage mission you're told very clearly which of the objectives you're supposed to be attacking/defending. Furthermore, on the mini-map all of your squad mates are a lighter blue than other friendly players and you should be able to notice them all moving in one direction. Unfortunately, there are consistently two or three players per squad (a squad is 8 players) who run off and do their own thing. The mic situation isn't as bad as I had been led to believe; usually at least half of my squad is wearing one.
The game play itself is enjoyable. The controls are pretty consistent with other PS3 FPSes and by the end of a couple of missions I had gotten used to them. One issue I have with the controls is selecting equipment. L2 cycles through your equipment like grenades, med kits and RPGs, while R2 cycles through your weapons. However, if you're using the med kit and then change to your main weapon using R2, when you hit L2 it won't bring back your med kit, you have to cycle through again, which can take a few seconds. I've found that to be really annoying, especially when you drop a grenade in the middle of your squad when you're trying to heal someone. If there's a better way to switch between rifle and med kit please let me know. That leads to the whole med kit situation. I've heard a lot of people complaining that nobody is resuscitating their team. Part of it is that Zipper has made it really confusing for new players. You start out with a first aid kit that lets you replenish your health. If you want to heal others you need to spend skill points and include a med kit, different than the first aid kit, in your loadout. However, even with a med kit you can't heal incapacitated players. For that you need to buy a second tier skill. In my first couple of missions I spent more time than I'd like to admit with my first aid kit out wondering why I couldn't heal anybody. That said, as the night went on I found that more and more people were using their med kits, so I fully expect this to get better as idiots like myself learn how to play the game.
In terms of combat, MAG reminds me of a lot of the older (PC) FPSes in that it takes a lot of hits to kill a player. While it can be annoying when you've got somebody in your sights who won't go down I think Zipper made the right call. I've found that Penny Arcades run and die take on MAG doesn't hold true. While you'll probably take fire while moving to the objective, it won't kill you. Because players can take a lot of damage you can usually find some cover and heal before getting back out to sprint to the objective. Snipers are annoying in MAG, but they're not too much of a threat unless you're staying still. I also believe that high damage threshold reinforces MAG's cooperative theme. The best way to take people out is to concentrate your squad's fire. The best moment I had last night was when four or five of us were sitting behind cover firing on a group of enemy's also behind cover, while one of us was constantly healing and resuscitating others. It was an intense firefight that lasted longer than it would have in any other game.
The greatest concern I have about MAG is balance. Zipper opted to go with three asymmetric factions. Raven is accurate, SVER hits hard and Valor is the middle ground. However, as somebody commented on one forum: you can spend skill points to make your equipment more accurate, but you can't make them more powerful. The conventional wisdom out of the beta appears to have been that SVER has a slight advantage. With SVER far ahead in the rankings it looks like this holds true with the retail release. I understand Zipper's motivation in making each of the factions unique, but I'm concerned that it's going to be impossible to balance. If everybody ends up on SVER the game is simply going to collapse.
Overall, I'm comfortable with having paid $60 for the game. Server stability and faction balance are two things that I'd keep my eyes on if you plan on being more cautious with your game purchases. However, when the missions load up and I get into the action I'm having a lot more fun that I was with Modern Warfare 2 and I think that as more people get the hang of it the game's only going to get better.